15 life tips for the unitiated, or, how to flourish as a stranger in a strange land.

Thirty years ago, my grandpa’s girlfriend found out he was still married, to my grandmother, who no longer lived with my grandpa. So upset at that initial “I’m married’ confession to even hear the details, this woman, who later became the woman I called “Grandma,” climbed on a bicycle and rode from his house in a rage. In tears, she pedaled furiously down the gravel driveway, and crashed. My grandpa fetched her, told her the rest of the story, and shortly after, married her, right around the time my parents married.

That was in California, near San Diego. Meanwhile, thirty years later, in San Jose…

I got a call from my mother, who had ridden my dad’s bicycle from his apartment in San Jose, pedaling furiously, also because of a confession about another woman. She was riding around town, beside herself, determined to stay at a hotel and fly back to Buffalo the next day. It was late afternoon when she called me, and after I heard her out, she said, “I’m going to go get some dinner.”

Imagining her riding back and forth between downtown San Jose and its airport, knowing my mom well enough to also know she would not return to my dad’s apartment that night, I asked her if she’d found a hotel room yet. She said no. I said, “Mom, get a hotel room. The first rule of survival is to make your shelter, even before you find food.”

She reconciled with my dad a day and a half later, but in the meantime, had a place to stay.

You’re not going to believe this, at least, not if you’ve heard me ranting about hunting, fishing, and camping, but I spent one hour of every day of my senior year of high school in a class called Outdoor Living. I needed a science credit and couldn’t fathom chemistry, so while I spent half my day surrounded by fellow over-achievers in AP English and History, I took another class with the kids who were destined for management positions at Wendy’s: the slacker science class. My teacher spent an entire unit on survival skills, and even though I hated the class, I remember a disturbing amount of it.

I hadn’t thought about it until that class, but the idea that one needs shelter more than food probably stuck in my head because I wound up later living in a lot of different, alien places. I don’t move to new cities with a boyfriend and an SUV, I move with a couple suitcases and a willingness to walk. And after doing so in Seattle, Portland, various parts of New Jersey, New York, Brooklyn, southwest England, Barcelona and now Austin, Texas, I can authoritatively call myself an expert on surviving in the non-wild wilderness we call the civilized world.

Some of the things I’ve learned, most people don’t and shouldn’t have to, because they give themselves “luxuries” like cars and familiarity. Other things, everyone should know, especially every woman, and I’m continually astounded how many don’t. So here’s a mixture of both.

  1. No one judges you for doing something alone. It is usually more fun to eat, shop or travel with good company. But the self-consciousness and fear that prevents most people from acting alone is largely imaginary: no one cares, and as long as there are other people within shouting distance, you’re probably safe.
  2. Rely on the kindness of strangers. Anyone who works at a bar, hotel, or any form of public transportation, knows from experience how to help the lost and confused. Elderly people and parents with small children are also usually trustworthy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going to the fair or flying to Guam: tip the bartender well, trust the bellhop, and be kind to the curly-haired grandmother sitting on the bench. Also, just because you didn’t stay at that hotel doesn’t mean you can’t ask the bellhop to call you a cab like your suitcase is upstairs in room #321.
  3. Conversely… if you’re female and alone, it is never rude to be rude. Most well-adjusted men know where it is and is not okay to engage a strange woman in conversation. The ones that don’t are the ones you probably shouldn’t get to know, even if their biggest crime is general cluenessness. Safe zones include: Bars, hotel lobbies, Toys R Us, and gas station pumps with at least one car between you. If someone approaches you outside one of those settings, feel absolutely free to respond in one sentence, smile politely, and turn away.
  4. If you’re worried someone’s following you, take some advice from a Wiccan book I’ve kept for the past ten years, and turn all the way around instead of glancing furtively over your shoulder. If someone actually is following you, he might be alarmed by your confrontational pose, you won’t look as scared as you would if you kept glancing, and you’ll be in a better position to fight back. And if it was just your imagination, the only people who’ll see you do it are the pigeons.
  5. Lost or overwhelmed? Find a restroom. I don’t know about Morocco, but in the US, even the worst parts of town have a crowded bar, grocery store, Starbucks, or McDonald’s. Head for the stall and get your bearings. It may sound gross, but no one is going to notice you studying your map or digging frantically through your purse in the bathroom. Collect yourself and then return to the fray.
  6. Reminding yourself that “you can always take a cab home,” takes the stress out of most situations, as long as you keep cab fare with you, and have the number of a cab company stored in your phone.
  7. Don’t drink unless you can accept the worst case scenario if you have one too many and your judgment flies right out the window.
  8. It’s okay to go home early.
  9. Don’t be afraid to get lost. Some of the best love affairs, creative epitomes, and undiscovered coffee shops have been discovered when I was lost. Just be aware that it all gets a lot more stressful after dark, and/or in ouchy shoes.
  10. Keep the following in your purse at all times: Antibacterial handwipes (Purell won’t do it if you have actual dirt on your hands); an iPod with cheering comfort music on it; almonds (to avoid costly emergency meals when you’re too starving to take another step); and if it makes you feel better, pepper spray.
  11. If you look sexy, you’ll get admiration, and (maybe) sex. If you look competent, you’ll get a job, the trust of strangers, entrance into any building you want without question, and that fabulous rent-controlled sublet. I’m not advocating women hide their feminity. I’m just saying that if you look like you’ve got money in the bank, a husband, and a full three car garage, you get access. Think J. Crew instead of Victoria’s Secret.
  12. Pay attention to landmarks. Navigating any new place is much easier if you note the tall building that looks like an owl (Austin’s got one downtown) and the big billboard with a salon advertisement on it.
  13. Most bus systems can’t give change, and most bus drivers are friendlier than they look.
  14. Regardless of what I said earlier, it’s always okay to show a little cleavage and a big smile, if you need some help and attention.
  15. Serendipity is your best friend. Planning the entire experience sets you up for disappointment, and you’re liable to miss the local treasures the guidebook missed. Leave the house with one planned destination or event and leave the rest up to chance. It is very, very important than you have time to pause for the shop, restaurant, or conversation that just seems to “catch your fancy.” Following those whims creates about 97% of the magic any individual will ever need in one lifetime.

Bilbo Baggins will tell you that every good adventure is scary by definition. The important thing is to find the wizards, dwarves and enchanted mini-swords that give you the courage to take it.

diamonds.

I sat in front of a pilot on my way from Buffalo to Austin last Tuesday. As the plane descended into fogbound Newark, I flipped through the fashion magazine I’d bought for the flight, wondering if there was any reason to lug it on the next leg of the journey.

I decided to leave it in the seat pocket for the next passenger. The only thing I tore out, inexplicably, was a two-page Tiffany’s advertisement for Celebration Rings. “Good taste,” the pilot said, resting his forearms on the back of my seat. I said I had never been into fine jewelry, and wasn’t sure why this particular ad appealed to me. He told me his grandfather had been Mr. Tiffany’s secretary, and had such perfect penmanship, he’d handwritten his daughter’s wedding invitations.

I said I spent so much time on my computer, I could hardly write a grocery list legibly anymore.

I didn’t tell him that I had left another Tiffany’s ad taped next to my bed in Buffalo, this one showing a man standing on a doorstep in the snow, holding a little box behind him. The copy was something like “This is the one, this is the moment.”

I love jewelry like everyone else, just not the kind of jewelry you have to lock up. But lately I’ve found these images of gold and diamonds as mysteriously compelling as a pregnant woman finds a jar of pickles.

Just before Mr. Hotness came to visit me a year ago, he got really stressed out about how little money he had for the trip. It took half an hour of calming conversation before he admitted he was disappointed his savings was so small because he’d wanted to arrive with a ring.

At the time, I wasn’t feeling quite as confident as he was that our relationship merited engagement rings. And even in the months prior, when my love for him was at its strongest, I had found the idea of marriage and all its trappings showy and unrealistic. Not only did I feel mystified by the ceremony and cost, I couldn’t take the idea of lifelong commitment seriously in the middle of my parents’ dissolution.

When he told me he’d wanted to buy me a ring, my audible response was, “That’s sweet, but you don’t have to right now.” Inside, I was thinking, “Gee… that would have been kind of nice…”

It took me a long time to realize that while I was attracted to him for his complex intellect, sense of humor and, well, hotness, I loved him for his devotion, rationality, and stability. These qualities, that I do not have in abundance, were also the qualities that made him consider buying an engagement ring despite my scoffing. At every step, I struggled with the slower pace at which he makes decisions, the thin veins of traditionalism running through his bass-playing, Japanese horror-movie-watching personality, his hesitancy to throw everything in a suitcase and fly someplace new and strange. But the same way he may need my impulsive unpredictability and grandiose emotional gestures, I may need someone who looks before leaping.

I’ve enjoyed myself since landing in Austin on Tuesday night. I’ve walked its beloved Sixth Street, crowded with college kids and noisy with live blues. I’ve had wine and hummus at a great coffee shop, talked to welcoming strangers, ridden clean buses, meandered downtown, had a delicious Tex Mex dinner with one of my new roommates, and been on two dates.

After not dating at all for more than a year, I’d forgotten the thrill of interesting conversation with someone you might get to kiss as well. I’d also forgotten why I keep circling back to Mr. Hotness. It’s very hard to find someone capable of witty date-night banter, who can also learn from his mistakes, cope with challenging emotions, and not require a lot of ego-feeding.

Meanwhile, a Tiffany’s ad from a magazine sits on my desk here, displaying rings made of gold, silver, and tiny diamonds. Rings you have to save up to buy for someone. Rings you can’t take off when your fingers swell in later years. Rings you worry about losing. Like so many traditions that cynical young liberals like myself mock, the wedding ring is more than something to wear; it’s symbolic of a relationship that shares those qualities. A relationship you have to work for, that becomes part of you, that you can’t bear to lose.

A relationship you’re willing to take risks for.

Mr. Hotness can’t leave England, and I have moved to a town in Texas that, at least on first impression, looks like a great place to be single. A few years ago I would have cherished the tattoos, vintage clothing shops, and huge Mexican Margaritas. And I may wind up staying here for years, enjoying those things. But the magazine ad sits on my desk for a reason. I can’t take the next step alone, and I can’t take it without investing in someone.

inside the revolution, part three: doing March right.

I started this blog back in July of 2008 with the express intent to write about life from a positive viewpoint. A recovered depressive still too inclined to sleep too much and avoid emotional risks, I needed this unofficial platform to publicly say “hey, life is good- even if I have to force myself to admit it.”

The following winter tested my positivity. Anyone who’s continued to read my thoughts might have done so out of appreciation for my “confessional style,” but not because I was Miss Cheery. I’ve waited for everyone to give up on me as boring and lacking spunk. Or worse, that I’d cross that line from “sort of blue” into actual “never leave my bedroom” depression.

I knew the minute I got here that Buffalo was a one-way train ticket to Depressionville. I knew I’d struggle with that Lake Erie wind, the widespread poverty, the limited entertainment. I was ready to go last March. I’d only come here to help my mom out and get my own bearings. But as though they had discussed it together, my English boyfriend and my mom both asked me to stay. They each said they thought I’d be happiest if I stayed, and my boyfriend wanted me to wait for him here. I was so astonished that two people who loved me so much could ask me to stay someplace so horrid, that I thought I must be missing something obvious. I applied for a part-time job here, and got it. A few months later I was a full-time Program Director and hanging pictures on the walls.

I committed a crime against myself, the day I applied for that part-time admin job. We all do it, all the time: we let other people tell us what’s right for us. It doesn’t matter how much someone loves you, how close they hold your interests to their heart, how good their intentions. If your reason and your heart tell you something is wrong for you, and you don’t act on that knowledge… you wind up a year later, like me, with so little to show for it.

It’s taken me this long to circle back and do March right. Since September, I’ve talked to people in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, even England and Italy, about living in one of those cities. Nothing clicked, nothing was doable. Finally, a few weeks ago, my eyes fell on the “other cities” list on Craigslist, and I remembered…

My friend Uke had suggested I’d probably like Austin, Texas, last spring. A friend of a friend recently had, as well. I always wrote it off as “too far south,” “too hot,” “too Texas,” like we all do when an idea comes out of nowhere and we’re not ready to entertain it… But really, could anything be “too Texas” after living here?

I put an ad on the Austin Craigslist for a room for rent, talked to several cool people, agreed on a room near downtown Austin. Tomorrow, I fly down there with my suitcases and my bunny.

I don’t have much of a plan. I’ll look for web design and admin work simultaneously while I get started. I’ll explore. And I’ll reach out to people at every given opportunity. Since arriving in Buffalo, I’ve been so afraid of falling in love with someone who might tempt me to stay, I’ve barely tried to socialize. I took the friendship my brother’s group offered, while it was available, and hardly fought for it when it wasn’t. I clung to Mr. Hotness and the DF, who both lived so far away.

I went out the other night to mark my last weekend in Buffalo, and five people joined me, including my brother and a friend who only showed up at the end of the night. We all had lots of fun, I’m glad we got to spend that Saturday night together, as we have so many others over the past year, but I couldn’t help but think… “what have I been doing all this time? No one even cares I’m leaving.”

I don’t say it bitterly. I can look back on every relationship and see points where I could have reached out and instead withdrew. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be here, not fully, and not well. And that’s on me. And that’s okay.

It’s a lesson, from an incredible year, that’s left me tougher, less inclined to doubt myself, and in the end, proud that it only took me a year to shake off the blues and take another chance on something… somewhere.

It’s happening at the right time, as my brother moves into his own apartment, and my mom spends time with my dad in California. We’re each finally ready to do our own thing.

Everyone I’ve talked to about Austin describes a bigger version of Portland, Oregon- liberal and hippie-arty. I think about the warm weather and get tingles of guilty excitement, like I’m going on an undeserved vacation. I’m bringing my sundresses, and leaving my sweaters. I’m going to show some skin… and more important, I’m going to show some heart. I didn’t give Buffalo enough- it’s a mistake I won’t make again.

I’m glad that Candi and Dawn and I got to spend the time together that we did. I’m glad our friend Chris shared so many nights of board games and beers with us. I’m glad I got to design websites and gossip with coworkers and go rowing on the pond with the DF. I’m glad Mr. Hotness and I got to share Niagara- that goes in the book of unforgettable. I’m glad I got to meet my brother’s girlfriend, an intelligent, funny woman who I suspect will be an important part of his future. And I’m glad my mom and brother and I got to grow, together, becoming a different kind of family, learning together about relationships and love… and just gabbing. What we accomplished together, emotionally, happened for sad reasons- but I think it was worth it.

I think it was worth it. That might be the biggest lesson I’ll take from the B-flo experience: taking the wrong fork in the road brings its own adventure.

What adventure will this next fork bring?

seeking fabulousness, or, making one’s own magic.

My “inside the revolution” series of three will be concluded as soon as I figure out how the hell the revolution is going to end. Meanwhile… I’m pursuing fabulousness.

Fabulousness is one part treating yourself, one part scaring yourself, and one part decoration. Decorating your life, yourself, or the world, with a project, love offered, or even the right handbag. It’s anything that celebrates, embellishes, and magickifies life.

Winter, BuffaloTo use movie analogies, 2009 was a Clint Eastwood western, full of stubbly chins, sweaty chaps and torn Wanted posters. It was real, it was hard, it was… Buffaloan.

Buffalo teaches you to make your own fun. Mix one 20-piece chicken wing with a half-case of beer and a hippety-hoppity station on Pandora, and you’ve got yourself a winter party in B-flo. Throw on your Uggs and wade off through the snow and ice. Bar hop. Drive out to the ‘burbs to go shopping at the shiny new big box stores. Life here is like the childhood our grandparents reminisce about, when kids didn’t have all those “newfangled gadgets,” and just entertained themselves with sticks and pebbles. Buffaloans can do a lot with sticks and pebbles.

Our family’s emotional life has had a similarly rough-hewn texture, with tearful conversations about my parents, my romantic stumblings, job drama. It has been a period of growth and discovery, but there’s very little about my life, for the past twelve, maybe fourteen months, you could call “fabulous.”

Even my hair, at its most awkward face-hugging phase while I grow it out, contributes to what you might call a period of “enh.”

Sarah Hassan When I go on Facebook, on the other hand, and see photos of my friend’s upcoming theatrical performance, or an old boss windblown and relaxed on a ski trip, or a couple smiling on a tropical beach, I feel awe. Because those things are fabulous. Wearing costumes onstage, traveling, finding gorgeous sunsets, loving a new person, painting a mural, raising a baby, carrying a pink patent leather handbag, and learning to tango, are all fabulous.

But especially travel, creativity, babies, and pink patent leather handbags.

DKNY pink hoboOne can be unfabulous in a big city, and completely sensational working as a waitress. It’s not about one’s circumstances so much as what one makes of them.

I wrote the other day about appreciating life’s imperfections, rather than expecting sudden magic. The distinction I’m making tonight is to not only accept what life gives me, but to give something back to my life. I used to think fabulousness was granted to the special, but after having a few fabulous moments myself, I know it’s something one has to create for oneself. Fate may have plunked me in Dodge City, but that doesn’t mean I have to walk around with mud on my boots, shooting strangers. And while the rough-hewn, unfabulous periods of our lives are inevitable and necessary, I’ve come too close to believing that’s all I get, or deserve… or want.

The weather is warming, snow melting. We’ll probably have one more big storm before March is over, but I didn’t even need to wear a coat today. Like so many things in my life, I’m always surprised when something horrid- like winter in Buffalo- can just end, without my needing to take out a warrant or sign a petition to ban it. It’s a pleasant thing to re-learn.

I’ve been offered a fun but low-paying job, here, that I have to either accept, or decline, in the morning. As I do so, I’ll be pondering the topic of my last blog: location, and how it affects one’s… fabulousness. I don’t think any city will ever satisfy my every desire, and I don’t think any city can be blamed for most of my personal problems. But I do think some cities are harder to flourish in than others. And if I have to go, I can’t think of any better guide than, “Where would Starina go?”

Now she was fabulous.

inside the revolution, part two: life is just a chicken breast.

My mom’s fond of cooking chicken- breading it, baking it, frying it, putting it in sauces from Asian to Mexican, tacos, salads, pastry shells. When she’s stressed or bored, she goes into the kitchen with a package of skinless thighs and goes to work. She’s never made a chicken omelet but it’s only a matter of time. And that’s the nice thing about chicken- it’s a meat of many colors, adaptable and diplomatic.

I’m twenty-eight years old and have moved twenty times. I’ve lived in six states and three countries, although Spain was only for a month, probably too short to count. I leave it on the list, though, to give my brother a reason to call me pretentious.

What defines relocation, in that context? I had a boyfriend who used to startle me by asking, “are you moving in this weekend?” when he only meant, “are you staying with me this weekend?” To me, a “move” does not require a certain length of time, but intent to stay. You can travel to Thailand for a year, but if you train from village to village, staying with strangers and at hostels, you’ll probably say you “traveled around Thailand for a year.” Move into a Bangkok apartment intending to marry a local, however, and you’ll probably say you lived there, even if he calls off the engagement a month later.

I count the two or three weeks I spent in Seattle in the summer of 2008, because I fully intended to stay, but I do not include the three weeks my mom and I spent in Vegas in January of 2009, because we had no intention of leaving our hotel room. Only two of the locations on my list lasted less than a month, the longest, five or six years.

To finish up the illustrative statistics, roughly half of those moves were initiated by my parents or as a family decision, the other half were solely mine. That means I’ve caught up fast with my parents, absorbing, without realizing it, both their fearlessness and their fear. The logistical challenges of packing up one’s belongings and carting them across the country to a foreign city do not bother us- the logistical challenges of staying put, do. If we had a dispute with the neighbors, or the kids in school were horrid, my brother and I rarely had to compromise, wait, or adapt. We’d soon be on our way. It bred a certain arrogance and dissatisfaction that’s hard to root out.

Over the years, my willingness to move evolved into a sense that, if or when anything went wrong, it was my duty to move. We moved several times for promotions for my dad, causing both his professional growth and our financial comfort. We moved to flee neighbors who held loud late-night parties and parked dead cars in their front yards, again to avoid forced busing to a school forty-five minutes away, a third time because pollution was making us sick (I found my hormone test results taken after we left Spokane- wow). In those cases, staying would have been simply due to fear. Ergo, if you’re unhappy and you’re not packing boxes, it’s because you’re afraid of change.

Those concepts, of location, happiness, and fear, are almost inextricably linked in my family’s consciousness. We’re addicted to change, convinced that unhappiness is our fault, and only curable by renting a U-haul.

This has come to a head here in Buffalo, a city a recent Forbes survey dubbed the “eighth most miserable city in the country.”

Twenty moves in twenty-eight years… but I’ve lived in Buffalo for more than a year.

When I visited my relatives in Seattle before Christmas, my aunt told me, “don’t stay there just because you’re ready to settle down.” I think about going home, about the Puget Sound, the superior jazz, the pine trees, family members who I know I could have a margarita with on a Friday night. I also think about the family members who stiffen when I mention Obama, meditation, or sex, the region’s fondness for Goretex, and the obese people who wheel themselves around Wal-Mart in electric carts.

Buffalo has a similar balance sheet. Relationships I tried to build here, have not lasted, my job’s kaput, the weather’s awful. On the other hand, living is cheap, bars are the best in the world, and my mom, brother and I know a lot of people here, whether by face or by name. It’s here, oh-so ironically, where we find a sense of community we haven’t experienced since I was in high school.

Could we find that community again, if we lived in Seattle in the same spirit? Maybe. Probably. I’m not sure if it matters where the next chapter of this story takes place. I’m not sure if it ever did.

I was jabbing a knife into some raw chicken breasts last night, duplicating something I saw Rachel Ray do to pork chops on the TV at the laundromat last week (we don’t have TV at home). As I stuffed the slivers of garlic into the white flesh, I thought, this is what it always comes down to: hum along to the radio, wash the dishes that have collected through out the day, turn on the oven, and try a new recipe. No matter what I do or where I go, from Portland to Devonshire, if you give me an evening alone at home, that’s probably how I’ll spend it. I usually wind up taking so long with the cooking that I’m not very hungry by the time I sit down to eat. I usually feel angry with myself for not having a nicer dining space in which to eat it. And I usually stay up too late with a craft project or blog afterward, like I am tonight.

But instead of staying put and changing my habits, I move, thinking I’ll establish a different routine somewhere else. That I’ll find myself eating with a lovable man instead of the cat, preparing great meals instead of “could be better” experiments, sitting down in a cute little dining room instead of at the Ikea thing mounted on the kitchen wall. But here I am, ten years out of high school, after so many different apartments, cities, roommates, jobs, weather patterns, sink-to-stove arrangements, and still, if I’m by myself on a weeknight, I’ll probably just cook some damn chicken and eat it alone. And by god, if that’s what I tend to do, what’s so wrong with that? Why am I looking for instant perfection?

Because at some point we forgot to enjoy the benefits of our fearlessness and started feeling compelled by it. We forgot that it’s okay to settle.

Mr. Hotness told me a few weeks ago that instead of changing my life, perhaps I needed to change the “writer’s perspective” on that life. That I needed to go into the “room of my depression” and sit there till I got bored and left. It was a beautiful metaphor, and one I’ve had in mind ever since. Sticking chicken into the oven last night, I kept mentally poking myself, looking for signs of having walked into that “depression room-” but I hadn’t. I even had fresh rosemary, for Pete’s sake, and my, how the asparagus glistens when it’s been burnt in olive oil. So my cooking skills won’t “catch me a husband” any time soon. I’m starting to find real, plain, boring old life just a little more interesting than my quest for an imaginary, perfect one.

The equation is pretty simple. If you say, “I want this kind of apartment, this kind of companionship, this kind of entertainment, this kind of landscape outside,” you can expect to be dissatisfied. If you say, “Ah, a night to do anything I want! Let’s put on a ‘Frasier’ DVD and have a beer,” with the cat snoring in the corner and your fuzziest slipper socks on, suddenly, you’re having fun. I’m not talking about rose-colored glasses or blind complacency, just acceptance. Or “acception,” as that cab driver in Chicago told me last December.

The chicken, by the way, was delicious. When I cooked asparagus again tonight, I did not burn it. And that little forward step, my friends, could have happened in any city from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine.

dirty little secrets.

I have a confession to make. I have always wanted to live just like my deeply Christian, politically conservative, gun-owning, Ford-truck-driving grandparents.

They live in a big house surrounded by tall evergreens that are usually dripping wet from a recent rain. My grandma has room for both a decorative and vegetable garden, plus a shed and huge mulch pile. They are part of the generation that considered DIY a necessity rather than a hobby, so if my grandma decides she wants a rock-lined stream flowing down to a fountain accompanied by fake deer statuettes, she and my grandpa build it. Until recent chemotherapy weakened and made my grandpa colder, he would meander out most afternoons to pursue various experiments in his wood shop. A new method of making chess boards, turning out a couple display boxes to sell at the local swap meet, a plate or two for my grandma to tole paint.

My grandparents don’t consider themselves particularly creative, and they don’t particularly value creativity in others. But they’ve lived, in my lifetime, an essentially creative life. They get an idea into their heads, be it a new way to germinate tomatoes, or how to improve the second bathroom, and they do it. Often, together, or with the help of friends and family.

When I moved to New Jersey to live in a million dollar home with a CEO and her two daughters, I was continually surprised by their household’s need to outsource. Cleaning, landscaping, setting up a closet organizational system, retrofitting the upstairs bath, even grooming their dog fell to someone else. My efforts to solve those problems myself or find cheaper solutions usually failed to impress. To that family, doing something oneself was a sign of poverty.

To my grandparents, and my mom and her two sisters, doing something oneself give one greater control, is rewarding, and saves money. My generation is not so self-reliant, but most of us still paint our own walls, dye our own hair, and groom our own damn pets.

In my grandparents’ case, doing things themselves did make them wealthy. Not to the standards of the CEO in New Jersey, but certainly to their own standards. Building their own construction company, raising three daughters with sometimes too-severe thrift, and more than three decades’ dedication to a major Seattle construction firm, has left them with an enormous home, a cabin, that well-outfitted shop, and a big shiny refrigerator.

Perhaps more importantly, they’ve earned the freedom to pursue the activities they love. Together. With family around them. That is my standard of wealth, a standard no one in New York or New Jersey replaced.

I don’t share many of my grandparents’ values. But deep in my roots, under the soil, and hanging over my branches, they are there with that life they built together. In their partnership. In their mastery of their respective crafts. In the importance they place on family rather than status or acclaim. In their home- with the three squares a day, clean sheets in the cupboard, guest room ready, every pipe and beam familiar to each of them.

And, despite everything that’s happened between my parents in the past couple years, I still consider their traditional marital roles equally rewarding and healthy for both of them. It’s still difficult to raise children, make a pleasant home, or nurture growing people, while competing in the outside world. Particularly if you can’t afford to pay people to help you out.

Just like I did when I left Oregon four years ago, I want children, time to write, and someone who loves me enough to make it possible for me to do both, with him. Pretty old school stuff.

At the same time, I want to explore new parts of the world and pursue whatever whim comes into my head next, unencumbered by the responsibilities of property or children. I want to nest and I want to wander, and I have always wanted both. I don’t know if that conflict will be resolved by going through phases of both, or if I’m struggling to reconcile my childhood role models with what I’ve learned about myself as an adult.

I spent most of 2009 reacting to life. To my parents’ conflict, the triad of evil, my job, this town. I haven’t had a lot of time to think about my own goals or desires. Mondo beyondo wishes fell to the wayside in the face of much more practical concerns. So I’m asking these questions, looking at what I want, now that moving and finding another job have gone from theoretical needs to genuine necessities. Settling down would require making very different choices than living the catch-as-catch-can life I’ve lived so far.

At this point, I can barely keep a pair of slippers for a month without losing them.